Modern-day female Willy Wonka makes elite edible candy art in New York
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Interview'I always liked the aesthetic; the luminosity and the magic'

Modern-day female Willy Wonka makes elite edible candy art in New York

With a mega-popular luxury candy business, former fashion designer Maayan Zilberman shares how her sweet dreams came true

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Sweet Saba founder Maayan Zilberman creates confections for fashion house Versace and the 2018 Met Gala. (Jason Lewis)
    Sweet Saba founder Maayan Zilberman creates confections for fashion house Versace and the 2018 Met Gala. (Jason Lewis)
  • Candy 'evil eyes' by Sweet Saba (Sweet Saba via Facebook)
    Candy 'evil eyes' by Sweet Saba (Sweet Saba via Facebook)
  • Candy flowers by Sweet Saba (Courtesy)
    Candy flowers by Sweet Saba (Courtesy)
  • Candy pizza by Sweet Saba (Sweet Saba via Facebook)
    Candy pizza by Sweet Saba (Sweet Saba via Facebook)
  • Candy cassette tapes by Sweet Saba (Courtesy)
    Candy cassette tapes by Sweet Saba (Courtesy)

Artist and confectioner Maayan Zilberman knows how to satisfy a sugar craving. But don’t look to her for kid-friendly treats. Owner of a high-end candy making enterprise in New York, she creates sophisticated sweets and bespoke sugar sculptures suited to the tastes of discerning adults.

After opening her business in 2015,  Zilberman discovered that customers have a sweet spot for her unique and whimsical hard candy confections that provoke a sense of nostalgia, especially among younger adults. Some shell out north of $100 to experience the captivating look and taste of a single serving of Zilberman’s edible art.

Although ideas for candies resembling objects such as lipsticks, nail polish bottles, pizza slices and pickles come from Zilberman’s own imagination, she credits her late maternal grandfather for initial inspiration. As a way of perpetuating his memory, she named her business Sweet Saba, with “saba” being Hebrew for grandpa.

“My grandfather and I spent a lot of time together. We used to make stuff in the kitchen… combining all different kinds of ingredients. It was more about experimenting with materials than about really cooking. It was more about chemical reactions, and I’ve been interested since then in combining or changing ingredients into a new form,” Zilberman said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

Candy pickles by Sweet Saba (Sweet Saba via Facebook)

Despite her current passion for candy, Zilberman wasn’t all that into it as a child. “I liked candy as much as any kid. I wasn’t obsessed or anything. It was more about the aesthetic. I always liked the aesthetic; the luminosity and the magic of how it all looks,” she said.

Ring pop by Sweet Saba (Sweet Saba via Facebook)

Zilberman, 39, was born in Israel to a Canadian mother and Swiss father. After living her first years on Kibbutz Degania Alef, she spent the rest of her childhood and youth in Vancouver, save for a period in the early 1990s in Jerusalem.

After initially studying ceramics and earning a degree from the School for Visual Arts, Zilberman switched to fashion design. She co-founded the The Lake & Stars lingerie brand in 2007, and later worked with the famous Frederick’s of Hollywood. Wanting to reconnect more directly with her art, Zilberman eventually left the lingerie business and ended up gravitating toward sugar after experimenting with it in her kitchen.

Sweet Saba started as a pop-up retail in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. From there, she started partnering with brands to do corporate gifting for special events. She’s collaborated with a variety of major brands, including Dior, Jimmy Choo, Swarovski, and Vogue. One of her favorite projects was with Versace to create candy for the 2018 Met Gala and Costume Institute exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The treats were inspired by hand-carved rosaries and giant papal rings she saw at the Vatican, and also incorporated Versace’s Medusa logo.

Confections created by Sweet Saba for fashion house Versace and the 2018 Met Gala, whose theme was ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.’ (Jason Lewis)

Zilberman works with a flavor house, a company that creates and sells flavor compounds for use in food and beverages, to produce the taste of her candy. At any given time, she has 30 to 50 flavors on hand to work with. They include whiskey, bacon, and mother’s milk (really just a sweet cream flavor). “My favorite is the grapefruit. It’s so delicious. It’s probably the one I go through the most,” Zilberman said.

She has also developed special flavors for projects she’s done with specific clients. For Estee Lauder, she came up with candy with notes of a new scent the company was launching. When working with Campari, she created candy that tasted like the company’s red, fruity-herbaceous liqueur.

Sugar sculpture by Maayan Zilberman (Ilan Rubin)

Zilberman creates colorful candy sculptures, as well as large installations underwritten by art foundations, museums, companies, and even private art collectors.

What started as an experiment in Zilberman’s kitchen has now become a booming business, with a studio in Brooklyn and a factory in Massachusetts. Despite the growth, Zilberman still has a hand in creating all of her artistic candy. Never relying on preexisting shapes or molds, she hand carves all of the originals prototypes in clay, fires them, and then make silicone molds from those. She directs the various processes used on the sugar, including blowtorching and painting.

The Times of Israel asked this modern-day, female Willy Wonka about the secrets to her sweet success.

Many artists intend for their work to last, but yours is ephemeral. What are your thoughts on that?

I’ve done pieces that have interactive aspects to them, with people taking pieces from them. I’ve done other pieces that are meant to disintegrate or melt. I did a piece for Art Basel that was on the beach [in Miami] that disintegrated and decomposed because of the salt in the air. If a piece is site specific, I integrate considerations about how the air quality will affect it.

I like that [my art] goes away. I’m not too attached to the permanency of any of it. For me, it’s about the idea and the experience and whatever people take away from it. I’m not really obsessed with it being archival. Sometimes people see one of my candy pieces and order an archival version that I make out of resin, so it becomes something else. I’m mostly interested in exploring all these ideas.

Sweet Saba founder Maayan Zilberman (courtesy)

I’m open to things turning into something else. Sometimes I think that a year from now it may not even be candy at all [that I work with]. It could be something else, and that’s okay.

What are your thoughts on the detrimental effects of sugar on people’s health?

I love the idea of candy and it being shared among people. It’s in the genre of treats and desserts and this forbidden thing that people want and know is not good for them. But at the same time, I’m very conscious about what sugar is doing to people’s health and our culture. It makes me very sad. I am thinking about that and how much I want to be contributing to that. I’ve been investigating different kinds of sugar replacements, and I’ve made installations with sugar that’s not sugar — substances made from plants. It’s an investigation, a process.

How do your travel experiences inspire your art?

I travel a lot. When I travel, I don’t rush to the museums. I go to the drugstores and candy stores and see how people treat the materials differently. I love glass art and go to museums with glass art collections. I’m drawn to aesthetics that look like candy, so when I travel, the photos I take end up looking candy-like and have a kitschy sort of appeal. I was just in Venice with my mom all of her photos were of the architecture, and all mine were of ribbons and ponytails and things I saw on the street. Those are the things I gravitate toward.

Your business is very Instagram-friendly. Why is being on social media so important?

I really couldn’t have my business without my Instagram. Most of my interaction with clients, including corporate brands, is through messaging on Instagram. My website exists as a platform, but most of the interaction is through my Instagram. It’s a direct way of communicating with my past, present and future clients. It’s much more informal and it makes for a much more open kind of business relationship, and I think that’s the direction people are moving in.

Sugar sculpture by Maayan Zilberman (Ilan Rubin)

This direct access to you is of course a double-edged sword. People feel like they know you and can communicate with you constantly, and it can be challenging. But I can’t complain because I enjoy the pros of the experience more than any of the cons.

How do you feel about being the public face of Sweet Saba, which sometimes means doing modeling shoots for publications?

It feels natural. I used to work in the fashion industry and I had a lingerie company for a number of years, so I’m very comfortable with image and how to present myself, and I’m comfortable with my body. I was in the media even more with my lingerie company, including modeling the lingerie. The way that I am represented now is much more modest. There were several years when I didn’t have clothes on.

People want to see who you are, and they want to feel like they know you and what message you are sending. If it’s a faceless product and a faceless brand, then people don’t trust you. It’s like with “Wizard of Oz” and “Willy Wonka” — in order to believe the magic, you need to see the face.

Sweet Saba products are available for retail sale at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

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